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Laurie Anderson, Marah, Paul Thorn, Robert Randolph, Wovenhand and Stars

By Brian Baker · July 18th, 2010 · I Shall Be Released

By way of historical context, Laurie Anderson’s last studio album, Life on a String, was released a month before 9/11, largely written and recorded in the earliest months of Bush Lite’s first term. And even though Life on a String predated the political tumult and social distress that followed the nation’s worst domestic terrorist attack, Anderson still provided an eerily prescient soundtrack for the event and its aftermath. On “Statue of Liberty,” Anderson intoned, “Freedom is a scary thing/Not many people really want it,” and on “One Beautiful Evening,” she noted, “Funny how hatred can also be a beautiful thing/When it’s sharp as a knife.”

As a visual artist, sonic sculptor and erudite wordsmith, Anderson has, from the start of her artistic endeavors and throughout her amazingly diverse career, existed in some future moment and sent critically perfect dispatches back to us in the duality of our present and her past.

Anderson has not been sequestered in some hermetically sealed panic room over the past nine years, so the technological/cultural/political sea changes that have occurred since Life on a String are clearly on her mind on Homeland, her seventh and latest studio album. And, as always, Anderson proves to be an astute commentator on the state of America (and the world). Even better, Anderson hasn't lost one iota of musical passion and provides an invigorating soundtrack for her fascinating travelogue.

Much of the album has been in development over the course of the past two years as Anderson has toured some version of this material and presented it without the distraction of her standard multimedia extravaganza, preferring to allow the drama of the words and music to provide the stimulation. It turned out to be a wise choice, as Homeland bristles with sounds and messages that are beautifully compelling and compellingly beautiful.

Take “Only an Expert,” for instance. Over a relentless Talking Heads-like electronic beat and husband Lou Reed’s circuitous yet crunchy guitar ministrations, Anderson weaves a brilliant monologue about the way Americans approach their difficulties, typically by turning on the television and finding someone who can identify and fix them in an hour (minus commercials). This morphs into subtext about the economic crisis and global warming, a device that Anderson has used with masterful skill in a good deal of her lyrical work.

A similar although weightier monologue takes place in “Another Day in America,” an 11-minute tome that drapes Anderson’s incisive observations about the state of the union — pushed through the masculine vocal filter that she has called the “Voice of Authority” — in an ambient sonic texture that is as simultaneously soothing and unnerving as Anderson’s words. Not that she needs the device to add gravity to her poetic musings, as her (mostly) unfiltered voice lends dark emotion to “Dark Time in the Revolution” and “The Beginning of Memory.”

Given the fact that Anderson has been touring steadily since Life on a String and working in various capacities (she was part of the artistic panel that crafted the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympics), it’s clear that she hasn’t really been away. But Homeland seems like Anderson’s dark, dramatic and welcomed return to a diminishing musical society of essential cultural narrators.

When is a Marah album not a Marah album? That seems to be the dilemma of classification concerning Life Is a Problem, the latest album attributed to the Americana Garage Rock quintet from Philadelphia, fronted by the frenetic Bielanko brothers.

The first point of departure is the obvious absence of the band itself. Life is a Problem was created by frontman Dave Bielanko and four-year band member (and provisional member before that) Christine Smith with no input from brother Serge Bielanko (who is on indeterminate sabbatical after the arrival of his daughter) or any other bandmate, for that matter. The album’s recording followed a period of internal friction that has seen three changes of rhythm sections, at least one of them related to Bielanko’s decision to keep Smith in the band. The distinction continues in the stylistic focus of the album, which was primarily assembled in a makeshift studio in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania’s Amish Country, a rural setting that is reflected in the album’s rootsy, dusty and loose direction. As a result, Life Is a Problem has the lurching Roots feel of a homemade Ryan Adams or Paul Westerberg project.

All of these things cannot diffuse the strong chemistry that Dave Bielanko brings to every release sporting the Marah name. He founded the band and, given the rotating nature of personnel and the fact that he has been the only true constant, there’s a strong case to be made that Dave Bielanko is Marah, and vice versa. Although it was Bielanko’s intention to make a stripped-back Folk record, Life is a Problem swaggers and shakes like a lo-fi Rock artifact found in the Stones’ basement vault.

There are a good many tracks on the album that date to Marah’s earliest days — opener “Muskie Moon,” a ramshackle rocker that plays like an even more American take on The Faces, was originally recorded for 2001’s Kids in Philly but was cut from the final track list.

Even on the new songs, like the brilliantly propulsive “Valley Farm Song” (a song that Bielanko rightly cites as “equal parts Grandpa Jones, Led Zeppelin and Biggie Smalls,” with maybe a shade of scaled back Billy Corgan epic attitude), takes its title from a high school tape made by the Bielankos.

Bielanko’s original intent shines through on the quietly beautiful “Within the Spirit Sagging” and the melancholy optimism of “High Water,” but his Rock heart and soul burst from the speakers with unbridled passion on the Sister Ola Mae Terrell-inspired title track and the Elvis Costello-tributes-the-Faces sting of “Put ’Em in the Graveyard.”

And Smith’s contributions to Life Is a Problem can’t be overstated; Bielanko credits her with lighting a fire under him and making this album what it is, which is one of the most shamblingly cool albums in the Marah catalog. And that is truly saying something.

Nearly a decade ago, guitarist David Eugene Edwards took a busman’s holiday during a hiatus from his primary gig as the frontman for 16 Horsepower and explored a reflective quietude with his largely acoustic side project, Wovenhand (or Woven Hand, depending on who you talk to and when). In a strange turn of events, 16 Horsepower dissolved within a year of Wovenhand’s sophomore album, 2004’s Consider the Birds, and thus Edwards’ part-time diversion became his full-time direction. Edwards was already in the process of folding more acoustic traditionalism into 16HP’s Rock and Folk pastiche when he recorded his stripped-back acoustic solo debut under the Wovenhand banner. His next 16HP project, 2002’s Folklore, seemed like a slightly more electric translation of Wovenhand’s dusty Folk whispers.

Since setting aside 16HP five years ago, Edwards has taken Wovenhand through some evolutionary shifts in personnel and tone (including the return of 16HP bassist Pascal Humbert), while leaving the pervasive Christian themes that marked both bands’ lyrical direction intact. Nowhere is that evolution more clear than on the latest Wovenhand release, The Threshingfloor.

Combining a sonorous atmosphere reminiscent of Nick Cave or Robert Smith playing an electric hymn and reciting a Native American sweat-lodge prayer (“Sinking Hands,” “Raise Her Hands,” “Behind Your Breath”) with a distinct Middle Eastern flavor (“A Holy Measure,” the title track) while maintaining a firm footing in the acoustic Folk camp (“His Rest,” “Orchard Gate”) as well as staying connected to 16HP’s Rock roots with an almost Stooges-like intensity (“Denver City”), Edwards has fashioned this latest iteration of Wovenhand into a typically fascinating and sonically diverse entity.

The beauty of Edwards’ accomplishment with The Threshingfloor is that Wovenhand is never one thing or another, but a compelling sonic blend where styles and moods rotate hypnotically in and out of dominant and subordinate positions, ebbing and flowing into one another with a tribal pulse and, as always, a redemptive reverence.

When Stars started out a decade ago as the little side project that could, they were clearly growing in the shadow of their parent band, the wildly popular Broken Social Scene. The first releases from Torquil Campbell’s interesting diversion were Electro Pop confections (2001’s A Lot of Little Lies for the Sake of One Big Truth EP and their joyous full-length debut, Nightsongs) but Stars added vocalist/songwriter Amy Millan and bassist Evan Cranley and evolved into an amazingly lush Indie Pop outfit on their subsequent albums. Over the course of the past 10 years, Stars has obviously blossomed into a world-class band distinct from Broken Social Scene, which at some point became better known for the bands that it has spawned than being a band in its own right.

Stars’ much anticipated fifth studio full-length, The Five Ghosts, finds the Canadian quintet returning to the Electro Pop direction of Nightsongs without forgetting the orchestrated Indie Pop in-roads they’ve made in its wake. At the same time, Stars’ perspective on love, the ever-present subject matter on all of their albums, has shifted to darker, more painful territory (it doesn’t require much sensitivity or depth of feeling to interpret the funereal “I Died So I Could Haunt You”).

reveals its melancholy outlook from its opening volley, the bleakly majestic “Dead Hearts,” a swelling Synth Pop call-and-response between the wounded Campbell and the angelic Millan against a sonic backdrop that suggests The New Pornographers if they’d been steered by the Human League. “Winter Bones” is equally mournful and a gorgeous example of Millan’s particular gift, namely the ability to sound vulnerable and powerful simultaneously. She is and hopefully will continue to be Stars’ secret weapon and most valuable asset.

isn’t all necessarily doom and gloom. “Fixed” sets its dour message to a bouncy Pop beat with synths and discordant guitars vying for attention, while “We Don’t Want Your Body” seems like a Disco-y throwaway Berlin outtake until you dig into the brutally direct lyrics (“Lie down and try to talk to me/Sleep now and dream of who you’ll be/When you finally become someone”).

Stars is one of those rare bands that seems to evolve with each successive album, constantly moving to keep things interesting and attracting new fans while never veering far enough off course to alienate the old ones.

Paul Thorn’s bio reads like a Faulkner novel on mescaline. Born in Wisconsin, raised in Tupelo, Miss., by his Pentecostal preacher father, Thorn learned guitar at 12 but took up boxing under the tutelage of a black sheep uncle (who had been a pimp at one time) and got good enough to earn a bout with Roberto Duran. Along the way, Thorn has worked in a furniture factory, become an expert skydiver and got discovered by an associate of Miles Copeland’s, which led to invitations to Copeland’s songwriting workshop and Thorn’s first Rock concert, which was opening for Sting in front of 13,000 people.

It’s easy to see where Thorn gets the characters for his songs; he’s the most colorful one of them all. From obscure indies to major label deals, from acoustic quietude to electric tumult, Thorn’s songs have always featured brilliantly fleshed out musical portraits, a surreal human carnival painted from Thorn’s imagination and memory.

On his ninth album, Pimps and Preachers, Thorn gets extremely autobiographical, particularly on the title track, a literal examination of his unorthodox upbringing. The crudely sophisticated cover art, painted by Thorn, further accentuates the duality of his life, a folksy evocation of an existence on the corner of Redemption Lane and Turn Out Boulevard where sin and salvation live with equal passion and determination.

Thorn’s brilliance bears a striking resemblance to John Prine’s. They both possess an almost supernatural ability to elicit side-splitting laughs and heartbreaking tears from one song — and sometimes one line — to the next. That gift is on full display on Pimps and Preachers, from the incisive and wickedly funny “Tequila is Good for the Heart” and “I Don’t Like Half the People I Love” and the sweet melancholy of “I Hope I’m Doin’ This Right” to the middle-aged hopeful heartache of “Ray Ann’s Shoes” and the post-Katrina pain of “Better Days Ahead.”

Musically, Thorn is at the top of his game, with AltCountry Blues, Folk balladry and Roots Rock bluster all take well-deserved turns in the mix, from the Bruce-Springsteen-tinged “Nona Lisa” to the Bob Seger-fueled “Weeds in My Roses” to the wistful and soulful prayer of “That’s Life.”

If Pimps and Preachers isn’t Paul Thorn’s masterpiece, it’s difficult to imagine what areas he’ll ratchet up on the next one in order to get there.

Over the past decade, Robert Randolph has gone from the obscurity of playing pedal steel guitar in House of God church services in his native Florida (in a style known as Sacred Steel) to being named one of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time on the basis of just two albums and an amazingly rigorous touring schedule. The acclaim is clearly warranted: Randolph does things with the pedal steel that are eerily reminiscent of the Stratocaster lightning produced by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, a sound that Randolph has applied to songs both sacred and secular.

The standard knock on Randolph has been that his relatively mannered studio recordings don’t begin to translate the heat from his incendiary live shows. Randolph’s third studio album, We Walk This Road, may not alter that perception but it’s obvious that Randolph and producer T Bone Burnett were more intent on crafting an atmosphere than addressing the ridiculous notion that Randolph’s passion seems lessened when the recording light is on. On We Walk This Road, Randolph follows his established pattern of blending hymns of praise and songs of contemporary import but, with Burnett on board, the two are threaded together with a visceral and textural intensity. Randolph’s take on Bob Dylan’s “Shot of Love” is transcendent, turning Dylan’s loping Folk Blues into a thunderous electric prayer, complete with tribal drumming from Jim Keltner, who played on the original.

Whether authentic archival songs of worship (“Travelin’ Shoes,” “If I Had My Way”), disparate modern tracks (Prince’s “Walk Don’t Walk,” John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama”), or glorious originals, Randolph and Burnett have fashioned a swirling sonic aura that tributes the past and trumpets the future with power, passion and reverence.



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